Cover Art By Tango
Disclaimer: The characters in this story do not belong to me; they are the property of Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA, and MCA/Universal. No profit is being made from this story, and no copyright infringement is intended.
WARNING: Rated NC-17 for violence and the graphic depiction of sex between a man and a woman. If you are under 18, if this is illegal where you live, or if this offends you, please find another story to read.
Author's Notes: The story takes place sometime in Season 6 of Xena: Warrior Princess, after "Old Ares Had a Farm." The plot is loosely based on an actual Season 6 episode of X:WP* (for the title of the episode see the note at the end -- to mention it here would spoil the surprise in the opening section).
This story is loosely based on the Season 6 X:WP episode "When Fates Collide."
My thanks to Tango and Taleen for some very helpful comments on the draft version of this story.
Sprawled on the throne in his quarters on Olympus, Ares cursed under his breath.
Everything was in its place: the tapestries of battle scenes, the spectacular displays of weapons on the walls, the jewel-encrusted goblets ... the human skull ornaments at which the other gods sniffed in disdain, and which he kept not only as a matter of personal taste but as his way of saying, I'm not a nice guy -- live with it.
Yes, everything was in its place. And in a few minutes, before he had a chance to take a few sips of rich, blood-red wine from one of those goblets, he'd wake up in that dump of a farmhouse where Xena had left him with a mutt for company. He'd be lucky if it wasn't raining and the roof wasn't leaking again.
Why did he have to keep dreaming about this? It was over and done with, he was a pathetic mortal who would never get his godhood back -- and, most likely, would never even have the one thing that would have made mortal life worthwhile ... a chance to spend it with the woman who was his other source of almost nightly torment. (But those dreams, at least, sometimes got quite enjoyable before he woke up.)
Well, if he had to have this dream, he might as well do something in it. He got up from the throne, walked around, picked up one of the goblets and thought of fine Falerno wine. The goblet in his hand filled immediately and he savored the liquor, swirling it in his mouth and beginning to hope that the dream would last a little longer. After putting down the empty goblet, he took his Sword of Power out of its scabbard and made a few moves, sparring with the empty air.
If things were going so nicely, maybe he could try to transport himself somewhere. Perversely, he thought of the farm. In the flash of a moment, he was standing in front of -- what the Tartarus? The surrounding fields looked pretty much the same, but in place of the dingy shack was a large villa with a luxurious garden. He chuckled: talk about wishful thinking. He made himself visible in mortal form (all the old tricks were working, exactly as if it were real) and came up to a peasant pushing a cart full of vegetables.
"Wasn't there an old farm over there?"
The man looked up at him.
"You from around here?"
"I used to know the family that lived on this farm."
"Really?" the man eyed him suspiciously. "Well, mister, you must've been out of touch with them for a while. Don't you know about the old folks' granddaughter?"
"Xena," he repeated, as if he's never heard the name before.
"Right. As in Xena, Empress of Rome."
He burst out laughing, ignoring the shocked expression on the man's face -- after all, this idiotic mortal was only a figment of a particularly weird dream -- and took himself back to Olympus.
Everything was still there, down to the goblet where he had left it.
He tried to remember what he'd been drinking the night before.
Just for the heck of it, he thought he'd try to open up a portal on Xena.
There she was, in a magnificent purple mantle and a golden helmet, atop a black steed, surveying a Roman legion.
He closed the portal and shook his head. For a dream, this one had a remarkable if utterly insane consistency. What next, he wondered? At that very moment, there were two flashes of light, and he found himself facing Zeus and Athena -- looking very real and very pissed off. Of course, that was the way they usually looked whenever he had to deal with them in the old days.
"Oh buzz off," he said. "Let me enjoy my dream."
"Nice to see you too, bro," said Athena, with her usual air of amused condescension. "And by the way, you're not dreaming."
By the time they took him down to the Temple of the Fates, he believed them. The three goddesses -- the crone, the woman, and the girl -- were chained up in such a way as to leave them enough freedom to be able to tend to their loom, but also to hobble and control their movements. Several Proxidicae, special warriors of the gods, were keeping watch.
"Take a look at this, son." Very carefully, Zeus lifted one thread and showed Ares a tiny, barely visible knot in it. "This is where Caesar, having escaped from Tartarus, pulled loose the thread of his own life and then re-wove it -- so that, starting at that moment, his destiny took a different course." Zeus pressed his fingers lightly to the knot, and an image shimmered over the loom, making Ares wince and scowl. It was Xena, naked and moaning in Caesar's arms. Zeus glanced at his son and released the thread, letting the vision fade.
"At that moment in time," Athena spoke up, "your Xena" (oh, the blistering scorn she was able to pour into these two words!) "was merely the leader of a band of pirates which captured Caesar for ransom. He promised her an alliance, only to deceive her and have her crucified; but even then, she had an annoying habit of surviving. Caesar believed it was the resulting enmity between him and Xena that led to his untimely demise, and so he decided to change his fate -- go back to that moment and make a different choice. And his destiny did change, but so did much else. You see, brother, in this world, where Xena became not only a commander in Caesar's army but his wife and the Empress of Rome, she never had that unholy spawn of hers. There is no Twilight, Ares. Zeus lives, as you can see, and so do Hera and the rest of the Olympians. Of course, every good thing has its downside -- you're still a god."
"Gee, Dad" -- Ares pointedly ignored his sister -- "and I thought you were such a stickler for the rules. I seem to recall a lecture about how no one gets to interfere with the Fates' Loom, not even the gods..."
"The gods didn't interfere." Zeus glared at Ares, pursing his lips. "And once Caesar lives out his allotted term in this time, he will pay a price for his trespass. But fate has been altered, in a way that has brought back our lives -- and our powers. It would be madness not to take advantage."
Ares rolled his eyes. "The gods didn't interfere? So I suppose the chains are for decorative purposes. And these guys" -- he nodded toward the Proxidicae -- "are just here to keep the Fates company. You know, you're a real piece of work, Dad."
Old Atropos lifted her head, her reddened eyes mournful and insistent. "Zeus, you must listen to us. You must allow us to undo what Caesar did. This is a world that was not meant to be. The consequences..."
"Silence, you all!" roared the King of the Gods. "Son, I didn't bring you here to bicker, only to show you what is at stake. Nothing less than a chance to save the rule of the Olympians."
"We remember who screwed it up last time, Ares." There was a touch of steel in the silvery voice of the Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare. "And we won't let it happen again."
Back on Olympus, Zeus and Athena finished briefing Ares on how this alternate world worked. Right now, they should have been at the point in time at which, in the other world, Caesar tampered with the loom after chaining the Fates -- about a year after the death of Hades had left Tartarus so poorly guarded. However, the disturbance in the timeline had somehow caused it to shift by about twenty-five years, to the point at which Zeus had died; or, as Zeus put it, "when the godless child was born." That explained why Xena looked as young as the last time he'd seen her in the other world (of which Ares still couldn't help thinking as the real world), even without her twenty-five year nap in the ice cave. No mortals were aware that their world had ever been any different, Caesar being one important exception. But the gods knew, and were somehow able to have memories of both worlds.
"Great," Ares drawled, his legs draped over the side of the throne in a pose of studied insolence. "So why's everyone acting like I'm about to do something to mess up this sweet little deal? Mortality isn't exactly an experience I'd care to repeat. Olympus or a filthy farmhouse ... yeah, that's a tough one."
"Well, bro," Athena leaned in, putting her hands on the arms of his throne, her grey eyes boring into him, "maybe it's because the last memories I have from the other time are of Xena's sword slicing through my guts -- not a very pleasant sensation, I assure you -- and you telling me that you had to let me die because you had, what did you call it? -- oh yes, 'a thing for her.'“
"I'd told you that if you had only left Xena and Eve alone -- “
"Look, we're not going to rehash that," Athena said. "That world doesn't exist anymore. The problem is, your little obsession still does. Still thinking with that same part of your anatomy, aren't you?"
He shrugged, without bothering to dispute the charge. "What does Xena have to do with any of this?"
"The thread of her fate in this altered time is intertwined with Caesar's. You start messing with her and no one knows what problems that's going to create."
"Aw, lighten up, sis -- “
"Ares, you listen to me." Zeus' face was as dark as one of his own thunderclouds. "You are my son, but understand this. You put us in jeopardy again, and I will not hesitate to have you cast into the Abyss of Tartarus, you hear? You may yet come to regret your filthy farmhouse."
"Okay, okay." He raised his hands. "I get the message."
Athena arched a brow at him. "Good to see you two are finally communicating."
"Hey Dad?" Ares called out just as the old man was about to depart.
"What is it now?"
"Say, there isn't any chance that in this brave new world, my favorite half-brother has met with some nasty -- “
Zeus cut him off, his scowl deepening. "Stay away from Hercules, Ares. I mean it."
A second later, the two deities were gone, leaving only a shimmer of sparks behind them. Ares shook his head.
"Great. The guy goes and kills him, and it's still 'Stay away from Hercules.' Why won't anyone ever give me a break?"
A quick trip to a mountain ridge where Ares was able to test his resurrected powers by blasting away at some rock considerably improved his mood. He stretched out on a stony ledge and decided to try out his memories of this altered past.
Some wars and battles had turned out differently; the Roman Army had been even more successful in its conquests, and there were far fewer freelance warlords left. Without Xena the Warlord, the conquering army that had once swept through the Greek countryside like a wildfire had been a mere shadow of itself; Darphus was a loser, just as he had always suspected. He was also intrigued to realize that in this world, he had a far closer relationship with Caesar and the Romans, despite their irritating habit of calling him Mars.
And then --
Ares sat up on the ledge so abruptly that he nearly lost his balance (it was a few seconds before he remembered that a tumble down a mountainside didn't have to worry him any longer).
His mind had retrieved a memory from just a week ago.
Xena, straddling him, gloriously naked, her head thrown back, her nipples taut under his fingers...
In this world, Caesar's wife was also mistress to the God of War.
Probing his new memories further, Ares was irritated to find that something about them wasn't right. They lacked full reality, as if he were watching himself from the outside, and out of focus at that; his passionate dreams from his other life seemed more real in some ways. But no matter -- he would make up for it very soon ... this evening, in fact.
He lay back and closed his eyes, anticipating their meeting. In a few seconds, his erection was straining so hard against his pants that he shifted uncomfortably. He brushed aside the thought of satisfying himself -- good enough for the farm, but it somehow seemed beneath him now that he was a god, and just a short time from fulfilling his fantasies -- and forced his thoughts to drift to other matters. He was relieved to realize that in this world, Xena (a new and apparently much improved Xena) had efficiently put an end to the Dahak mess before it started, wiping out the cult of the dark god and razing the temple just like he told her. Thank all the gods alive, she'd also taken care of that peace-and-love freak Eli, who was stashed away in some Roman prison (preaching his message to the rats, Ares thought with a feral grin). Dear Old Dad had a point -- this world was looking better and better.
He also realized that this time around, he -- or was it a counterpart of his, who had somehow been absorbed into himself at the moment when the timeline switch took place? -- had never experienced two previous brushes with mortality. Of course not; both those incidents were connected to Xena, and the first also to Callisto (of whom, in this time, he had no memories at all). No Callisto ... no Hope ... that meant another difference --
Strife's pasty white physiognomy wasn't exactly a sight for sore eyes, any more than his familiar cackle was music for the ears; nonetheless, Ares was barely able to stop himself from squeezing his idiot nephew in a bear hug. (Dammit, he had to watch those mortal emotions.)
"Strife. Don't you know better than to sneak up on me?" He schooled his voice to the chilly tone the godling could expect.
Strife's beady eyes darted every which way. "Hey, Unc... ya know, that little war we had all planned in Parthia? Well, guess what ... heh heh ... Hercules is meddling again trying to work a peace treaty... what are we gonna do about it?"
Ares sighed. Suddenly, the prospect of going up against Hercules didn't seem at all appealing. He searched his new-world memories for what he could find about this war in Parthia, and decided that it would be a pretty boring affair in any event. He yawned conspicuously.
"Tell you what, I'll leave this one up to you and Discord." (Her annoying head firmly reattached to her shoulders, of course.)
"But Unc -- what if we screw it up?"
"Are you a god or a total incompetent?" he bellowed, hurling a fireball and causing a small shower of splintered rocks to come down on Strife's head. "Can't I delegate anything around here?"
"Okay, okay ... I promise, Unc, I'll do my damnedest," Strife whined as Ares recalled that abusing his nephew had been a lot of fun after all. At the moment, though, he was looking forward to entirely different pleasures.
"Good." He released another fireball into the mountainside. "You bother me again and the next one's gonna be aimed straight for your ass. I'm taking the day... no, the week off."
The feast at the palace was in full swing. Slaves scurried around, refilling cups with wine and carrying trays with such decadent delicacies as roasted swans in apricot glaze; musicians and nearly nude dancers, male and female, entertained the assembly. A sudden hush fell over the banquet hall at the sight of a new arrival: a tall, imposing man in metal-studded black leathers, with a great sword at his belt. While Ares had chosen to materialize outside the hall and walk in rather than make a more spectacular entrance, many guests knew that this was no mere man but the divine patron of the rulers of Rome -- the God of War himself.
The emperor and the empress promptly rose to their feet; it was not often that the Lord Mars honored one of their banquets with his presence. At Caesar's signal, a serving girl, looking down and trying to keep her hands steady, approached the god with a goblet full of wine; he drained it quickly, without breaking stride, and walked right up to the imperial couple.
Caesar, in a white toga with red and gold stripes, bowed his head gravely. "My Lord Mars."
Ares barely acknowledged the emperor with a nod as he looked past him, to the woman at Caesar's side. The empress was clad in a slender purple gown bordered with gold, accentuated by austerely elegant gold forearm bracelets and a necklace. She was wearing a touch too much makeup perhaps, and he was startled to see that her hair was styled in frizzy ringlets. But it was her all right, and she was magnificent.
"My Lord Mars," she said, bowing her head.
Her voice was low and sensuous, but the words were so jarring -- Lord? Mars? For a moment, he would have preferred to hear her call him a bastard or one of those other choice words that she used to sling at him.
"Can we entertain you at our humble dinner, my lord?" Caesar asked. "Or do you wish, perhaps, to talk about the plans for the Egyptian campaign?"
"I'd love to stay and chat, Caesar." Ares' eyes flashed unmistakable mockery at the emperor. "But right now, what I need is to borrow the Empress for -- ah -- a private consultation."
Caesar didn't flinch, but a slight shadow crossed his face; the liaison between the empress and the God of War was an open secret in Rome's high circles, but Mars, or Ares as he preferred to be called, had never yet flaunted it quite so brazenly.
His voice was unfailingly polite. "Of course, my Lord Mars."
All eyes followed the god and the empress as they walked toward the doors. Once outside the hall, he took her hand, feeling the coolness of her slender fingers, and, in a swirl of sparks, whisked them both away to the inner chambers of one of his temples.
She looked at him, a flicker of cool amusement in her blue eyes.
Ares picked up two goblets and handed one to her. "By the way, stop calling me Mars."
"Oh yes," she murmured, sipping her wine, "you prefer Ares."
So at least in that respect, he wasn't different in this world.
"You shouldn't forget your Greek roots, my dear. Besides, I hate 'Mars.' It's lame."
"So, my lord Ares..." He winced inwardly -- from her, it still sounded pretty lame -- but in the next instant, the knowing smile that played on her lips made him forget all about that. "Shall we discuss the Egyptian campaign? Their fleet -- “
He gazed at her, his lips parted, his heart racing so fast that he had to catch his breath. His warrior princess -- or was it warrior empress? -- alone with him in his chambers, with that smile and that glitter in her eye, holding a goblet of wine, the fingers of her other hand playing with the golden clasp of her gown ... that she wanted to talk to him about battles could have been the icing on the cake. But, in truth, this particular cake didn't need any icing.
He threw the half-empty goblet aside and pulled her toward him before she could continue.
Her lips opened to welcome his kiss, her tongue thrusting against his. Making an effort to stop his hands from trembling, he undid her belt and the clasp of the gown, and felt the thin fabric slip through his fingers.
Ares took a step back. The soft glow of the oil lamps gave her skin a golden hue. He'd seen Xena like this before, when she so unselfconsciously stood up in her bath at that monk's residence all those years ago ... only this Xena was no innocent. She came closer, pressed her palms to his shoulders and kissed him again, running her tongue over his lips and then probing his mouth before she pulled away, her teeth tugging a little at his upper lip. His breath ragged now, he let his sword belt drop. Her hands slipped the vest off his shoulders and went for the fastenings on his pants, sending little jolts of shock through his body. His arousal wasn't making her task any easier, and he finally did it the old-fashioned way and just wished the damn pants off, along with the boots and gauntlets. The thought flickered in his mind again -- could it be one of those dreams he'd had so many times? Well, if it was ... oh, to Tartarus with it. He clasped her against him, letting out a guttural groan as his cock jutted against her stomach.
Now the only question was whether to bury himself inside her right away, or take it slow and let his mouth make love to every inch of her -- a much more pleasant set of options than any he'd had to face recently.
He pulled her down on the dark crimson sheets of his bed, his lips roaming over her neck then sliding lower; her nipple hardened as he rolled it in his mouth, and she gasped and moaned. He looked up and saw that he had succeeded in wiping that self-possessed little half-smile off her face; her eyes were clouded now, her mouth open in need. None too subtly, she rubbed herself on his leg. No, not yet. He brought his mouth to her other breast before kissing his way down to the dark, neatly trimmed triangle of curls. He had wanted to toy with her some more and linger on her inner thighs before reaching his final destination, but his own need to taste her was too overpowering.
What a thrill, to draw those little sounds out of her and hear them grow louder and more desperate, to feel her quiver as she thrust herself toward him, her fingers clutching at his hair. He knew all the little tricks -- sliding in and out, parting the soft folds, flicking the swollen bud with just a feathery touch and then sucking it hard only to stop before she was too far gone -- but to have her so out of control, so surrendered to his lovemaking ... it was almost like enjoying this caress for the first time. She was nearly crying now, and he knew he wouldn't be able to stand it much longer; this time, he took her over the edge, gripping her hips as she arched, drinking in the cries and the spasms that shook her body and wouldn't stop.
When her tremors subsided, he pulled himself up and lay next to her. Xena finally opened her eyes, the sly coolness returning to her gaze, then lifted her head and leaned forward to kiss him.
"Mmmm ... shall I ... return the favor, my lord?"
"Would you quit calling me 'my lord,'" he whispered hoarsely. "Just 'Ares.'“
She gave him a rather startled look, and he wondered if he could really be that pompous in this world -- until he remembered that such deference had never bothered him in any of the other mortal women he'd bedded.
A few moments later, she could have called him Cupid for all he cared. Oh, it was too much, she was going to leave him as helpless as she had been just now ... and, by Olympus, he didn't mind. Could it be that no woman in thousands of years had made him feel this good? Or was it simply the giddy knowledge that it was Xena, ever so lightly scraping his cock with her teeth, swirling her tongue around the aching tip, teasing him with those butterfly touches, pinching his nipples just hard enough to sting a bit? He clenched his fists, arched his body, muttering incoherent words of encouragement. Just when he thought it couldn't get any more exquisite, she sucked gently on his balls and he could hear himself making a sound that was almost like a whimper; the heat was rising in his body, pulsing and tingling as she took him back in her mouth -- oh yes, just like that -- right there -- don't stop Xena -- by all the gods don't stop --
It took him a while to catch his breath. She was looking at him, smiling, clearly relishing her power. He took her hand and kissed her fingertips.
"You know, if I were still mortal you might have killed me."
She raised her eyebrows. "My lord, your sense of humor is ... fascinating."
"I mean -- if I were mortal." Ares paused. "I told you, stop calling me 'my lord.'“
She nodded and looked at him sideways, obviously trying to figure out what he was up to. He didn't give her too much time for that, grabbing her and pulling her on top of him.
"Let me inside you," he said, his voice thick. "I want you now."
She glanced down and smirked. "Oh yes -- I sometimes forget that you aren't limited by, ah, the weaknesses of mortal flesh -- “
Well, he certainly wasn't going to let her forget it tonight.
As she straddled him and he felt her silky warmth enveloping him, Ares knew he was about to be lost once again. While he was still able to think, he looked at her and thought that he hated her hairstyle. He stroked her hair and, mustering all the concentration he had -- which wasn't very much -- used his power to straighten out those ridiculous ringlets. He hoped that, in the heat of passion, she wouldn't notice for a while.
Ares opened his eyes, coming out of the pleasant half-dozing state into which he'd allowed himself to drift a few hours ago. He looked at Xena, asleep by his side, breathing softly, her head nestled on his shoulder.
The chamber had no windows, but he knew it was high noon. He'd really worn her out, hadn't he. Just as he had suspected, Xena had quite an appetite; but he had godhood on his side, and more than thirty years of frustrated passion. He wasn't sure how many times they had enjoyed each other last night, or in how many ways. He would collapse on top of her, shaking and groaning, and start again almost immediately -- flipping her over on her hands and knees and slipping a hand down to stroke her until she cried out and bucked against him, or kneeling and lifting her supple legs up on his shoulders so he could thrust even deeper into her and watch those lovely full breasts bounce with each move. Then he would lie back and let her take charge, riding him, sometimes ceasing all motion and using just her inner muscles to drive him wild -- keeping him on the brink of release until he rasped, "Xena ... please," not quite sure if he was begging her to end the torture or draw it out even longer.
Now, as he looked at his sleeping princess, Ares ran his fingers through her hair and idly wondered if, some day, he should get Uncle Hades to reduce Caesar's punishment for tampering with the Fates' Loom.
It would soon be time to get her back to the palace; during one of their rare breaks last night, she had mentioned a meeting with the high command to discuss the campaign in Egypt. He bent down, ran his tongue over her right nipple and sucked lightly, feeling the little nub stiffen in his mouth. She sighed and muttered, then stirred and finally opened her eyes.
"Your wake-up call, madam."
Xena stretched luxuriously. "Ah ... my l- -- uh, Ares... good morning..."
"Good afternoon, my dear."
"Have I slept that long?" She smiled, catlike. "You were ... ummm ... unusually enthusiastic last night... did some battle go especially well?"
"No, I've just missed you, that's all." He drew her toward him.
"Oh?" There was a note of sarcasm in her voice, but before she could say anything else, he covered her mouth with his.
"I'm still enthusiastic," he whispered, breaking the kiss.
"Oh no -- Ares ..." she laughed, "I'll barely be able to walk... let alone ride..."
"Come on, you're much tougher than that."
After a moment's hesitation, she kissed him back. He eased himself inside her; this time he was slow and gentle, stroking her face, planting little kisses on her eyelids and her nose, pressing his mouth to her neck and shoulders where he had left purplish marks the night before.
And then, as they lay quietly in the afterglow of their lovemaking, their fingers intertwined, his face buried in her fragrant hair, he murmured, "I love you, Xena."
He heard her low chuckle.
"My Lord Ares -- as I've said ... your sense of humor is exquisite ... but I confess, at times my poor mortal mind just doesn't get the joke."
The sweat on their bodies felt sticky and clammy, and he was acutely aware that a strand of her hair was in his mouth.
By the time Ares raised his head and looked at her, he had managed a mischievous smirk. "I just wanted to see what it would be like -- you know, to say one of those silly things you sentimental mortals say at moments like these."
The Empress rolled her eyes and sat up. "Well, you should have tried it on one of your other girls, then. I may be a mortal, but you ought to know that I am no sentimentalist... In any case -- I think it's time for me to get back to the palace. I must look a total mess." She ran a hand over her hair and gasped. "What happened to my hair?"
He grinned a little sheepishly. "I thought it looked better this way."
"Better?" Her eyes flashed with anger. "I didn't know you doubled as the God of Beauty Tips. Do you realize it took hours to style?" The deference was momentarily gone, and she sounded very much like the old Xena ... the other Xena ... whatever ... berating him over some dirty rotten thing he'd done. Dammit, it was refreshing.
"Hey. Those silly curls make you look like a simpering Roman socialite, not a warrior."
Xena glanced at him, obviously taken aback by her own outburst, but then saw that he wasn't angry and shook her head. "I can't go around the palace like this ... I look like some barbarian queen."
"A gorgeous barbarian queen."
She chuckled and went over to pick up her gown.
When she had finished dressing, Ares took them back to her quarters at the palace.
"Still mad about the hair?" He nuzzled her neck.
The War God's mistress ran her hand up his chest and brushed her lips against his. "Thank you for a lovely night ... Ares."
He pulled her toward him. "I want to see you again tonight."
She laughed huskily. "Have mercy. I must save something for my lawfully wedded husband, you know."
"I outrank him," growled the God of War, crushing the Empress's lips under his. He no longer felt like trying to get Caesar any breaks in Tartarus.
Back in his throne room on Olympus, Ares reflected on the situation.
Okay, maybe this world wasn't quite as perfect as it had seemed.
But it was still pretty good.
The battle had not yet wound down when Ares transported himself to the top of a hill a short distance away. He'd always gotten a kick out of assuming the form of a common soldier and throwing himself into the action, often taking turns on both sides if he wasn't backing one of the combatants. Yet now, the fun just didn't seem to be there.
He wasn't quite sure why. After all, both Egyptian armies -- the one backing Queen Cleopatra and the one championing her rival brother and nominal husband, young Ptolemy -- really fought quite well, for non-Greeks. Besides, he should have been taking an interest in the matter; after all, his protegees planned to take Ptolemy's side and use the civil war to bring Egypt under Rome's thumb. This time around, Xena's presence had apparently prevented Caesar's alliance with the queen -- hardly surprising, considering how it had been cemented -- and the Romans had obviously calculated that the boy king would be easier to handle.
Maybe everything in this new world still seemed a little fake to him, staged, like the Romans' gladiator fights. Or ... what if he wasn't up to the job anymore? He hadn't even gotten all that upset when Strife had -- naturally -- botched the job in Parthia and let Hercules work out the peace deal; sure, he had blasted his nephew with a couple of fireballs and sent him scurrying away whimpering, but that was more of a formality. And down there just now, while chopping his way through Cleopatra's ranks, he was aghast to find, somewhere in the back of his mind, the thought that this wasn't very sporting -- while he exulted in his skill at parrying his opponents' blows, he was invulnerable to them anyway. This latest, extended stint as a mortal must have really messed with his head.
Maybe that was also why this business with Xena was such a distraction.
It had been three weeks since their first meeting. There had been many more, not only in bed but in the council chambers, where they had discussed war strategy -- sometimes along with Caesar, which couldn't be avoided since he was the Emperor after all -- and in a training arena where they enjoyed bouts of swordplay, much like he'd once done with Livia. (To his amusement, he had discovered that the non-existent Livia's old nickname, the Bitch of Rome, had now stuck to Xena in those parts of the world where Rome wasn't well liked.) The swordplay, of course, would usually have a follow-up in bed.
She was everything he could want in his warrior queen: a fighter of superior skill; a strong leader who wholeheartedly embraced the idea of world domination through force on which he had tried in vain to sell the original Xena; a lover of whom he couldn't imagine ever tiring.
For one thing, he found that sharing her with that bastard, her lawfully wedded husband, enraged him. His imagination painted such vivid scenes of Xena and Caesar together that he finally decided the real thing would be easier to deal with and opened up a viewing portal into the imperial couple's bedroom; a few seconds later, he blasted a hole in the wall of his own temple where he happened to be at the time.
But, perhaps worse, every time he saw her, there was some fresh reminder of all the ways in which she wasn't the original Xena.
The hair -- the silly ringlets were back -- was the least of it.
In the other world, he had long reconciled himself to the fact that, however much Xena the dark warlord had drawn and excited him, the Warrior Princess he loved was the one who had channeled her fire and rage into self-sacrificing heroics, into fighting against him and atoning for everything she had done in his service. The irritating blonde, he had to admit, was on to something back there in Amphipolis -- when, in response to his taunt about how much he'd liked the old Xena, she asked why, in that case, he was so obsessed with the new one.
But this Xena was neither of those women. In this life, Cortese's raid and her brother's death had still forged her into a warrior; the union with Caesar, though, had turned her into a politician. There had been no betrayal by a man she had fallen for, no agonizing near-death to send her careening into true darkness, no need to fight her way out that darkness as violently as she had once embraced it. Instead, she had gained power, and had worked carefully and cleverly to preserve and expand it.
Whatever rage she'd ever possessed had been subsumed into ambition; whatever fire burned within her was a controlled, well-behaved little flame. And love ... ? The memory came back to him of how, in his other life, after the Furies had nearly driven him to kill Xena, she came up to examine the bruises and scrapes on his face where she had punched him during their fight, and then leaned in and kissed him softly. It was much too chaste a kiss, and seconds later she told him he had a one-in-a-billion chance of ever being with her. But there was an even smaller chance that, in all those hours of rolling around in bed, Empress Xena would give him a fraction of the tenderness that had been in her kiss and in her eyes just then.
So now he was fantasizing about his life as a mortal. Great, just great.
Ares snapped out of his reverie when a human stampede came charging toward where he sat invisible to mortal eyes. Ptolemy's men were on the run; it was too late to turn the tide of the battle now ... godsdammit, he had promised the Romans to swing this one Ptolemy's way. All this nonsense was indeed affecting his job.
Moments later, he was thousands of miles away from Egypt and in his temple in Rome, pacing back and forth in the inner chamber. It was time to admit it; he wanted his girl back.
Easier said than done, of course.
What could he possibly do?